“Hell,” wrote Percy Shelley in 1819, “is a city much like London.” A hundred and twenty years later Bertolt Brecht, who fled the Nazis for Santa Monica, volunteered a different perspective. “I,” he wrote, “who live not in London but in Los Angeles/Thinking about Hell, suppose it must be/Even more like Los Angeles.” In Hell, too, there are
such luxuriant gardens
With flowers, as big as trees, that admittedly perish at once
Unless watered with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With heaps of fruit that, it must be said
Have neither smell nor taste. And the endless columns of cars
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, gleaming vehicles in which
Rosy people coming from nowhere are going nowhere
And houses, built for the happy and therefore empty
Even when lived in.
(translated by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine)
The two-story clapboard house in which Brecht eventually settled cost sixty dollars a month. It recently sold for just under $5 million, having since gained (according to an ecstatic article in the Los Angeles Times) a sizable addition, a glass bridge, and a drought-tolerant garden of native plants and shrubs. As of this summer, the very expensive water is now available for outdoor use only two days a week, in a belated effort by the State of California to offset the megadrought choking the region these past several years. It may not be hell, but nor does “the city of angels and constant danger”—as 2Pac called it—do a good impression of heaven.
Two new collections of poetry about Los Angeles have little in the way of Brechtian dyspepsia, though they do share an interest in exile. Adam Kirsch’s The Discarded Life and Boris Dralyuk’s My Hollywood express loving, if at times uneasy, attitudes toward the city both writers have called home—Kirsch from birth, Dralyuk from the age of eight, when his family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. While neither is oblivious to LA’s considerable hazards, from natural disasters to a militarized police force, these concerns are nudged gently to the side in favor of more strenuously private explorations of diaspora and nostalgia. The latter is less a theme than an alibi for form: The Discarded Life is, like Wordsworth’s Prelude, a memoir in blank verse, or unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, My Hollywood a colorful assortment of poems (sonnets, ballads, villanelles) and translations mostly in rhyme.
It’s always a risk to write like this, to take up old-fashioned meters and styles and try to make them new. The bar for failure is low. Meanwhile, there’s something perverse about giving Los Angeles—which is, after all, the city of Blade Runner and the Terminator franchise—the heritage treatment, nipping and tucking its poorly engineered sprawl and vibrant, violent cultural histories into the tidy package of received forms. Can “English heroic verse without rhyme,” as Milton called blank verse, really capture LA’s edge-of-the-desert introversion? Can English verse with rhyme get at its dizzying asymmetries, the lopsidedness of a place that is at once home to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and the county with one of the highest poverty rates in the US? What’s the point of playing tradition’s “undisturbed song” (Milton again) in the Cadillac Desert?
The point is that song is never static, and tradition itself is disturbing. Kirsch, an editor and a prolific critic, knows his way around the Western canon as if it were Mulholland Drive. He appreciates that blank verse is a big deal, that since Paradise Lost it has been used to signify seriousness of purpose. The Prelude is in blank verse because Wordsworth wanted to suggest that what he called “the growth of a poet’s mind” as it runs the gauntlet of childhood and adolescence was as weighty a subject as the fall of man. The Discarded Life makes a more cautious, wearier, though not at all cynical version of the same claim: that the poet’s mind is built out of innumerable arbitrary experiences no different from those had by any other lucky or miserable person on this sad earth, whose postlapsarian state we all must endure.
The Discarded Life is made up of forty separate poems of around twenty to forty lines each, arranged in chronological order from Kirsch’s infancy—“In the beginning, I am holding hands/With someone who has been erased completely”—to a period of middle age marked by “the slow decline/Of my ability to feel regret.” The earlier poems are notable for their pop-culture references, and it is in their coupling of poetic ceremony with mass-produced memories of being a kid during the Reagan administration that the book’s sensibility is most persuasive. Amid the obsolescent clutter of Atari and Apple II computers, Kirsch finds his adult personality beginning to take shape and, with it, his poetic voice. Both of them—personality and voice—are anxious, melancholy, bookish, with the irrepressible and essentially benign arrogance of Stephen Dedalus or Max Fischer (of Rushmore fame). Here is a portrait of the artist as a young man very eager to be old:
In the sarcastic crack of Devo’s whips,
The neon leotards of “Physical,”
I sensed a power that I couldn’t name
But knew would like to overturn the world
That I could barely manage right side up.
The music I took refuge in was different,
Once I discovered it: Beethoven’s Fifth,
One of the first CDs my parents bought,
Began as tedious, prestigious noise
But after many tries I learned to follow
Sound the way I followed thought and speech:
Statement and development and coda,
Turbulent but under strict control,
The way I hoped that I would always be.
Kirsch, you may have gathered, is deeply uncool. Still, he is not conservative. He knows that blank verse, too, might be described as “prestigious noise” and takes the risk of letting us find him as inaccessible as his young self found a symphony. There is a kind of painful authenticity present, audible in the obstinate syntax of “knew would like” and the rumpled prosody of “statement and development and coda,” which all but overthrows Kirsch’s meter even as he boasts of his aptitude for order. This is very much the same child who, in the poem immediately before this one, counts the shock of his parents having a party after he’s gone to bed among his “early traumas”—a grandiose description that earns its stripes once Kirsch explains, “I’d learned so early and could not deny,/That life was more enjoyable without me.”
Call this the Eeyore-esque sublime. Kirsch writes poetry that is self-effacing but not abject, whose formal audacity is undercut by its sense of perspective. The poet’s mind, Kirsch seems to suggest, grows when it knows its limits. Although The Discarded Life treats the commitment to staying in one’s lane largely as an artistic one, there are moments when it tiptoes toward something more explicitly political, as in Kirsch’s account of the 1992 LA riots, or rather his peripheral experience of them:
One April morning, we woke up to find
The lawn and windshield wearing coats of ash—
The particles of burnt and looted shops
That floated west from Normandie and Florence….
The strange effectiveness of boundaries
You won’t find listed in the Thomas Guide,
Although the cops are always there to guard them;
The piquancy of waking up to ash
You know will wash off with a garden hose,
A dirty symbol of immunity
From fires that always happen somewhere else.
Kirsch is no Eve Babitz, semiseriously mourning the loss of Frederick’s of Hollywood to insurrection (“too much of a price to pay,” she sighed). Into the muffled chime of “guard them” and “garden” he folds the lesson “that innocence can be offensive,” that the walled oases of the nice, white neighborhood would not exist without racial violence and the vigilance of the LAPD, who function here like the “dreadful Faces” and “fierie Armes” of the angels sent to guard Eden at the end of Milton’s epic. It’s a striking collaboration of sound and image, and it works neatly to secularize as well as politicize Kirsch’s embrace of older forms and themes.
When Kirsch leaves Los Angeles for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and campus parties “fueled by one-upmanship and alcohol,” the animating tensions of the book dissipate. Instead of unsettling or even tragic spots of time—Kirsch handing over his Star Wars action figures after a classmate threatens to kill his parents, the sudden deaths of Sesame Street’s Mr. Hooper and, in another poem, an elementary-school classmate—we get starchy aphorisms like “Childhood is a long and restless sleep” and “The world is watered by a stream of money/That comes and goes in seasons, like the Nile.” One misses the stories, the way Kirsch holds an episode or encounter out as the key, maybe, to some future neurosis or ambition. “Poetry,” he writes in conclusion, “is a method of disposal,/Giving a decent burial in words/To the discarded life I have no use for.” Is this true? The poems suggest the opposite: in them the past outlives the present, which vaporizes before it can even be remembered.
The poet Michael Robbins, whose first two books were written largely in rhyming quatrains and quintets, thinks we’ve internalized “a kind of shame” about rhyme, an embarrassment so stubborn we can outsmart it only by coming up “with some sophisticated theory of rhyme” instead of just accepting the obvious: rhyme is good to hear, fun to say, amusing to read. “We have lost track somewhere,” Robbins writes in Equipment for Living, “of rhyme’s reason—to give pleasure.” Other functions exist, sure; but why should they have to?
Boris Dralyuk’s My Hollywood seems to embrace the proposition that rhyme might happen just for kicks. After all, kicks—what Robbins calls pleasure—are hardly a trivial matter. Unlike Kirsch, whose use of blank verse has a clear rationale behind it, Dralyuk embraces rhyme with a rare and admirable enthusiasm for sound and syllable, for musical variety and plays on words. “Motes build tract housing in the grooves of vinyl,” he writes. “An eerie calm prevails. Not tomblike—shrinal.” Ever needed a rhyme for “Pasadena”? Try “misdemeanors.”
That said, it’s also the case that Dralyuk’s interest in “Russian Hollywood” and LA’s history as a safe haven for people—like Brecht—on the run from the twentieth century produces a sense of the city as suspended in time, a haunted museum where the actress Alla Nazimova lounges by the pool (“her private Black Sea beach”) and Arnold Schoenberg “lobs grapefruits/And insults at [the novelist Lion] Feuchtwanger’s wife.” (This is a true story, though in Marta Feuchtwanger’s telling she was holding the grapefruits, not being struck by them, as Schoenberg complained about what he took to be Thomas Mann’s fictionalized portrayal of him as Adrian Leverkühn, the syphilitic composer in Doctor Faustus.)
Dralyuk’s rhymes, along with his use of hardy workshop perennials like the villanelle, suit this sepia-tinged atmosphere, lending My Hollywood the romantic penumbral air of one of the shops he describes in “The Minor Masters.” Think of those engravers, bookbinders, and electricians for antique lamps,
immune to time and innocent of pain,
intact, immaculate, as none of us remain.
Long live the masters whose quaint crafts are holy.
They work in solitude. Now by appointment only.
The unspoken but unmissable question is whether poetry, too, is an antiquarian pastime, a niche commodity for niche consumers. Dralyuk’s ventriloquizing of a shop-door sign—“now by appointment only”—brings the matter down to earth, turning what might otherwise be a self-loathing self-assessment into a kind of elegiac optimism. After all, if you’re holding his book in your hands, you’ve kept the appointment and he’s pocketed your attention, if not very much of your money.
This air of upbeat sorrow permeates My Hollywood. It’s an émigré mood, defined by the conviction that things could always be worse. “The good old days” may have passed, and Hollywood’s glory may be “far too faded to restore,” but for Dralyuk there is real beauty in dilapidation, even as he flinches at the sight of “shuttered storefronts” in neighborhoods where “rents climb out of reach” for families like his. The attitude here is retiring, not combative. Dralyuk observes without resisting what the great LA poet Sesshu Foster calls the relentless “gentrification of your face inside your sleep,” for My Hollywood greets change for the worse as an inevitability. “The neighborhood is lurching towards crisis,” Dralyuk writes, “all in slow motion…./There’s nothing new in this.”
Besides being a source of playfulness and joy, rhyme is also a figure for that which is both novel—like a crisis—and “nothing new.” Dralyuk’s rhymes are consistently surprising: along with “vinyl/shrinal” he gives us “pleather/whenever,” “façade/esplanade,” and “acetone/Villon,” a nod to the rakish medieval poet François Villon tucked into an ode to the alcoholics who frequent a hotel bar downtown. Then there is this fitting epitaph for Brecht’s old house and its climate change–ready garden of hardiness zone 9 shrubs: “Your bold agaves, fierce, protective aloes/lay down their spears beside the realtors’ gallows.” With each turn of the line we move forward into something unexpected while also being anchored—perhaps restrained—by a slightly flexible, mostly fixed choreography of sound.
Of the roughly three dozen poems included in My Hollywood, eight are translations from LA-based poets of the Russian diaspora, among them Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky, Peter Vegin, and Vernon Duke, né Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky. Duke is best known as a songwriter and lyricist who collaborated with Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, but he also wrote poetry, including the archly titled The Sorrows of Elderly Werther, published in 1962. As Dralyuk explains elsewhere, “The Sorrows includes an entire sequence of poems dedicated to Los Angeles: portraits of a faded movie star on Sunset Blvd., a toothless beatnik in Venice Beach, an old heiress in Beverly Hills, etc.” My Hollywood has two of these: “Farmers Market,” a blank-verse paean to “purely thoughtless tenderness,/uncomplicated happiness” that comes with strolling along “where fruits and vegetables and flowers/arch like a rainbow over earth”; and “Sunset Strip,” which itemizes the tattered dress and lifeless eyes of some “star of yesterday,” “abandoned by the cameras”—Norma Desmond without her mansion.
Dralyuk is a sensitive and skilled translator, so it’s no surprise to see him reflect with care, and in verse, on the process of turning someone else’s words into his own. “The Catch,” a short poem on translation, compares the activity to fishing:
I draw you out, faint voice, from rippled pages:
a famished angler reeling in a fish,
the kind that, in the folktale, grants a wish—
a golden thing, imbued with living magic.
Between us is the taut line of attention,
imperiled by the current and the wind.
Slowly but willfully, I reel you in.
We hold each other, for a moment, in suspension.
We might expect the motion of the translator to be skillful rather than willful, his relationship to his catch one of fidelity, not dependency. But Dralyuk is “famished,” and his pursuit of a moment of sympathy dogged, even desperate. This is translation as both murder (the poet is caught and consumed) and mutual salvation: the translator eats, the poetry gets read.
Brecht did not like the word “emigrant.” “That means people who leave,” he wrote, but “no, we fled,” becoming “almost like rumours of crimes that have slipped out/Over the border.” For Dralyuk, this painful state seems more livable, his Los Angeles a home as well as an exile, made habitable by poetic art. Like Kirsch, he uses form as a means of self-regulation, of finding stability amid perilous conditions, and, maybe, of reviving some portion of what has been lost along the way. In a city that has all but trademarked apocalyptic dread, or what Kirsch calls “the sense of something coming to an end,” there is much to be said for persistence.